Why Kids Don’t Need Praise (And What They Need Instead)

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Recently, I was chatting with a mom at the playground about kids’ behavior, and she commented to me that kids need praise and approval from their parents, as there are too many dysfunctional adults in the world to indicate otherwise.

To this, my response was, “I think what they need more than praise and approval is encouragement and acceptance.”

“Isn’t that kind of the same thing?”

Not really.

I understand where she’s coming from; she means that many adults have emotional and behavioral problems because growing up, they needed something from their parents that they simply didn’t get (or didn’t get enough of). I agree. And this thinking–that kids need an abdunance of praise from their parents in order to grow up confident and emotionally stable–is not uncommon. The thing is, it’s not actually praise and approval kids need.

You may argue this is just semantics, but it’s really so much more.

When I hear people say that kids need praise, what I think they really mean is encouragement. Praise is superficial and non-descriptive. It’s “Good job,” or, “I like that” or, “That’s a pretty picture,” or, “Excellent work.” It’s generic and leaves a person wanting more, needing more…not feeling quite satisfied. Our self esteem might be high while we’re receiving praise, but if it ever stops, we either seek out more or get discouraged about its absence. Praise is an external motivator and must be constantly applied to remain effective.

Encouragement meets the same purpose as praise and speaks to a more meaningful sense of accomplishment. Encouragement gets to the “why” of praise. It communicates what’s so ‘good’ about something, why we’re proud, what we love about it, or the qualities that make it excellent.  Encouragement takes praise a step further with messages of effort, persistence, thought…the deeper reasons behind why someone should be proud of their accomplishments.

Good job; you worked so hard on that!

That’s a pretty picture; there’s so much detail in there.

I’m proud of you; that took a lot of patience and you never gave up.

And it’s the encouragement that’s important. The praise can stay or go (some would argue that it should go), but the words of encouragement are all a child really needs to hear. If the feedback they hear from you is, “You worked so hard,” or, “Boy, there’s so much detail in your painting,” or, “That sure took a lot of patience,” there’s nothing lost and a lot gained. It’s the same message of enthusiasm that is now focused solely on the child and the things we value: effort, hard work, persistence.

But, you may ask, without the good job we’ve taken out the part about our approval, haven’t we? If we never say “Good job,” or, “I like that,” or, “I’m proud of you,” they’ll think we don’t approve of their work–of them–and have low self esteem, right? Won’t they always be seeking approval?

Not if we’re communicating effectively; deeply. If all we ever offer is the superficial stuff, the blanket praise without any meaning behind it, kids will always seek approval because they’ll never feel satisfied. But if we’re offering meaningful and genuine encouragement for their achievements, they won’t need our approval. They’ll approve of themselves.

So, more accurate than saying kids need a parent’s approval is to say they need our acceptance. Kids don’t need us to approve of everything they do, they need us to accept everything about who they are. Yes, even the mistakes, the misbehaviors, the unpleasant feelings they sometimes often express. We don’t have to approve, but we do need to accept. It’s the acceptance, not the approval, that works miles towards developing long term relationships and teaching discipline, responsibility, confidence, and self-love.

We accept children by hearing their feelings without judging them, by empathizing without evaluating, and comforting without criticizing. We accept that they had a bad day and their behavior is reflecting their feelings. We accept that sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes they need to cry, sometimes they don’t behave perfectly. That doesn’t mean we approve of the harsh language, the harm they inflict on others, or damage they may cause to personal property. But we accept it is a part of being human, growing up, and learning to manage big feelings and fix mistakes. We accept them for who they are today, right now. And we’ll do the same thing again tomorrow. And again every day until they’re all grown up. And even then too.

A parent’s approval will never matter to our children as much as our acceptance will. We don’t have to approve of anything our children do if we can accept everything about who they are.

It’s not semantics, it’s perspective. As soon as we understand there’s a difference between praise and encouragement, approval and acceptance, we begin to interact more authentically with our children. With encouragement and acceptance comes the development of a child’s self confidence and the ability to rest in the security of an unconditional relationship.

A portion of this post has been excerpted from Encouraging Words for Kids, by Kelly Bartlett, an ebook highlighting alternatives to praise.

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Author: Kelly Bartlett

Kelly Bartlett is the author of "Encouraging Words For Kids" and "Help! My Child is Addicted to Screens (Yikes! So Am I.)" She is an API leader and Certified Positive Discipline Educator in Portland Oregon.

2 thoughts on “Why Kids Don’t Need Praise (And What They Need Instead)”

  1. Oh. So. True! This brings together what I have come to believe and learn about this topic but in a way more concise, elegant and readable way. Thank you!

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